Gordon Brown reprimanded for mythologizing W W I

Historians in the News

Dr Gordon Brown is a qualified historian. As readers of his biography of James Maxton will know, he can be a considerable and a rigorous one. As a politician, though, Prime Minister Gordon Brown is an opportunist about his former academic discipline. He plays fast and loose with British history, and rarely more so than in his most recent remarks about the first world war.

The death this weekend at 111 of Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier to fight in the trenches on the western front, is a poignant event and a large symbolic national moment. The first world war has cast a very long shadow over 20th- and 21st-century Britain and Patch, with the interviews he gave in his later years, helped to ensure it continued to do so. Now, with Patch's passing, what was once called the Great War slips finally out of direct memory and into the history books.

Brown was quick to respond to Patch's death by announcing a special national service of remembrance to commemorate the sacrifices of the first world war generation. Here is what he said yesterday:

I think it's right we as a nation have a national memorial service to remember the sacrifice and all the work that was done by those people who served our country during world war one and to remember what we owe to that generation – our freedom, our liberties, the fact that we are a democracy in the world. Those men and women did a huge amount and it's right that he have a special commemoration of what they have done.

I have no problem whatever with the idea of a national memorial service to mark the passing of the first world war generation. It is a huge moment for the collective culture and it deserves to be marked and reflected upon with great care and feeling. But I am fed up with Gordon Brown's unseemly attempts to rewrite British history and at his efforts to enlist huge, complex and traumatic events such as the first world war as part of his campaign to persuade us that British history is an upward march towards liberty, tolerance and all the other values which he would like his ill-starred premiership to embody.

It simply is not true that we owe"our freedom, our liberties, the fact that we are a democracy in the world" to the sacrifices of the millions of people of Harry Patch's generation in war. One could, I suppose, just about make a case that British participation in the first world war was at some level about freedom, though the freedom was primarily that of Belgium, and the freedom that was at risk – both of Belgium and by extension of its allies – was the freedom to remain independent nation states in the face of German expansion, not freedom of a more individual kind.

But it is misleading to imply that the first world war was fought in the name of freedom more generally, let alone of British liberties, and still less in the name of democracy. Even in the second world war, about which that case can be made much more properly and convincingly, the reality is that this country went to war against Germany, rather than in defence of democracy against tyranny, liberty against servitude or good against evil. For Britain, the chief direct effect of the first world war was the temporary end of the German naval challenge and the acquisition of German colonies in Africa. After both world wars, but after the first world war in particular, the victors made considerable efforts to reframe the conflict in much loftier terms than those they professed at the outset.

Read entire article at Martin Kettle in the Guardian

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